A Scott Pilgrim Adaptogram

When I obsess over a movie I do things like look at the source material and see how it differs from the adaptation. So if you grokked “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and want to know what you can get by dropping $60 for the comics on Amazon (I assume some omnibus version will be published at some point), I checked.

1. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

Basically, it’s all in the film. Back-of-the-envelope guess: The first 35 minutes of this 110 minute film are based on this first book. That makes perfect sense, because the film rights were optioned after this book, surprisingly, took off. And this is the story that a million nerds who are too cool for Twilight* fell in love with. So we only get a few unimportant amputations and changes. We don’t get the creepy meeting between Scott and Knives on the bus, although I can swear a scene from this (Scott winking) was used in trailers, so it may have been shot. The movie takes away some dialogue I liked, and I think would have worked (Wallace comparing Scott’s Knives quandary with that of Ewan MacGregor in “Trainspotting”) while adding a scene in which Scott and Knives play a made-up ninja dancing game. This was obviously added to establish that we’re going to be seeing a lot of video game logic in the film, so fine, whatever.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Aha! Here’s the first big, successful change — the 30-page high school flashback that opens the book was cut from the film but used for a totally excellent Adult Swim animation. And here come some more changes, because the film takes place over, I think, seven days, while the comics take place over a year. That’s fine by me. Instead of losing money from a miniseries that will be adored for decades, some studio is losing money on a movie that will be adored for decades. But it obviously alters the rhythm from the languid, slackerish, pace of the comics, a pace that makes the romance so believable and relatable. So all of the Book 2 scenes wherein Ramona integrates into Scott’s world are scrapped, as are the characters of Hollie and Lisa. The battle between Ramona and Knives is moved, in the film, all the way to the finale, where it’s part of the setpiece battle at the Chaos club.

3. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

From now on let’s just assume that time is passing in these books that doesn’t pass in the movies. So there’s no confrontation with Todd at Honest Ed’s, and the battle between Ramona and Envy never happens. (The film trims a lot of girl problem plotlines, actually.) I’m a bit sad about the loss of this exchange:

RAMONA: What the hell is this? Why are they all rooting for you when you’re obviously a huge bitch?

ENVY: Ramona, sweetie, I’m famous.

But it’s gone — the whole book is dealt with in basically 10 minutes of movie time.

4. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Everything’s different! Roxy is introduced before Todd. The Ramona battle is inserted into this storyline — she fights Roxy, not Envy — and the adorable sequence from the full-color Scott Pilgrim comic, where Ramona guides Scott’s fists for him because he doesn’t want to punch a girl, is slotted into there. The Lisa plotline is cut, as is the character of Mr. Chau. Fine by me. Oh, and in the movie Scott and Ramona don’t move in together — he wins the “power of love sword” in the final fight, not in the fight here.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

Behold, the most perfunctory use of source material! Almost nothing from this, the most depressing volume, makes it into the movie. Instead of fighting with robots and Double Dragon moves as they do here, the twins fight with a sound deck that creates a sonic dragon of some kind. (The “amp to amp” fight is a great Wright invention, though.) Ramona does not disappear — and it’s really goddamn hard to understate how sad her disappearance was for those of us who read the book as it came out — but instead gets with Gideon.

6. Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour

Remember what I was saying about truncation? This book opens with Scott recuperating from a monthlong depression over Ramona leaving. He clumsily tries to make out with his exes, Knives and Kim, and confronts what an asshole he was to them. He defeats the “Nega-Scott.” (The Nega-Scott appears in the movie in an extremely Wrightian manner.) He defeats Gideon Graves inside of Ramona’s head, then he and Ramona team up to beat Graves in reality. The movie takes the last part of this, sort of, and you can’t say it “changes” it because the script was finished before O’Malley’s comic was. Wright just makes the decision to involve both Knives and Ramona in the fight, and — in the only change I find unsatisfying — lets Scott make the final move on Gideon. In the comic, Ramona and Scott do a Chrono Trigger-style X-slash that slices Gideon. And goddamn it, that tells us they’re soul mates more than Wright’s version.

*We think!

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

I adored this movie. I adored in the way the Younger Dave used to hoard VHS cassettes of anime and Kevin Smith and Whit Stillman movies, and watch them over and over again. I adored it more than I’d expected to because early reviewers said things like this:

Who cares if Scott winds up with Ramona, Knives, or anyone else? Described by his own sister (Anna Kendrick) as “chronically enfeebled,” he makes an implausible lady-killer—and even less of a fighter, despite his innumerable bouts against Ramona’s other beaux. These are staged and filmed as if they were video games, all painless panic, and they are best taken as Scott’s inward reveries of a power that he will never possess. I strongly suspect, in fact, that he stayed in bed and dreamed the whole sweet movie. Call it “Inception” for geeks.

Stupid geeks! What’s wrong with you idiots, taking all this pleasure from silly fight scenes and an inscrutable love story? Go back to ComicCon, and clean your rooms!

It’s a goddamn shame that “Scott Pilgrim” (do you mind if I call it that?) hits just as the movie-critiquing profession gets over a couple of the nerdy trends that made it marketable when it was optioned a few years ago. The indie geek-who-gets-girl-despite-being-an-“ass” (as Pilgrim calls himself at one point) genre hit the reef sometime after “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Michael Cera, who became a beloved critics’ kewpie doll after “Arrested Development,” wore out his welcome with a series of mediocre roles, led by “Year One.” What to take out the anger on? “Scott Pilgrim,” obviously.

All the criticism is wrong. Judged as its own movie, and judged as an adaptation, this is a complete success. There is no weak performance; the songs, by Beck, Broken Social Scene, and Metric, are not just catchy but appropriate for the “bands” playing them; the visuals are really unlike anything ever seen in the movies. I’m talking about the effects ripped right out of 8-bit (and occasionally 16-bit) video games, but I’m also talking about director Edgar Wright’s dizzy editing, where conversations are finished across multiple scene changes, and title cards and narrations pop on and off the screen informing us without distracting us.

Let’s talk about the adaptation first. Wright was tasked with compressing a story that takes more than 1100 comic pages to tell — adapt every scene for a movie and it’s probably 6 hours — into around 110 minutes. He gets rid of some dross and loses almost nothing. Yes, I like the comics for the way they drag Scott’s romance with Ramona out over the course of a year, so you see them grow together, but Wright does a better job of making this action convincingly happen over the course of a few weeks than I thought would have been possible. He’s also extremely good at 1) adding jokes that jibe with the material and 2) adapting jokes that you thought only worked in sequential art. For the first example, I’m thinking of the lines he gives Brian Comeau in the double-shot scene (don’t ask) when Scott confronts Gideon. One of the times that Scott walks past him, we hear Brian in a snobby conversation saying “well, the comic was better than the movie.” That’s funny, but it’s the kind of joke you could put in any comic book movie. The other time we overhear Brian, he’s saying “the first album is better than the… first album.” That’s the kind of joke you’d laugh at in a smart indie comedy, the kind of joke that made readers love the “Scott Pilgrim’ comics, and Wright just threw it in there.

I mentioned the casting before — it’s one of the things that makes this work as a movie on its own, not just a faithful adaptation. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona is a little darker and harder-to-get than the Ramona we saw in the comics. I don’t think we ever see her teeth when she’s smiling, and she disappears from the movie more than she does in the comics. (When she flat-out vanishes in volume 5, it’s a huge, heart-breaking deal.) We (by which I mean nerdy guys) immediately fall for the comic version of Ramona. We fall for this Ramona, too, her huge eyes that burn with obvious intelligence. We instantly love Kieran Culkin’s Wallace and Ellen Wong’s Knives, who’s given a lot to do here — so much that the audience is clearly torn on whether Scott should be with her, even though he obviously shouldn’t. (She’s 17!)

I don’t have much to say that doesn’t sound like gushing, so just go see the damn thing. It will make less money than it cost, and the smart kids will call it a bomb, and then the rest of us will keep watching it for decades.